The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi September 29, 2017 The Rev. Anne Abdy Jeremiah 22:13-16; Psalm 148:7-14; Galatians 6:14-18; Matthew 11:25-30
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11: 28)
What would be one word that would summarize St. Francis’ ministry? I think the word compassion would do. But other words like disciplined, eccentric, entitled, questioning, and seeking also come to mind.
Today we are being “liturgically naughty” and we are celebrating the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. The Feast Day is October 4th. Francis was born in 1182 and much of his youth and adulthood was spent in fruitless attempts to win military glory. At one point he was held captive in a neighboring city, and he is said to have “set himself apart from his companions, ceased complaining and began singing in French the songs he had learned from his mother.” In the midst of extreme desolation, disappointment, and embarrassment, Francis found hope. This cross which birthed death, destruction, and oppression through the ages, is the same symbol that gives Christians hope. Francis figured this out and he took to heart the real meaning of Christianity. “He was a man of evangelical principles called to a mission of radical renewal.”
Part of his mission of radical renewal included various encounters with beggars and lepers. In the Early Middle Ages there was no support for outcast. These individuals were the untouchables. Much like in the early 1980’s at the onset of the HIV/AIDS epidemic resulted in those with this disease being ostracized. I remember the fear generated towards this group was huge. No one touched them or held them unless wrapped in protective gear. There was no a hug or handshake. So much was miss-understood about HIV/AIDS. Likewise, so much was miss-understood about leprosy and for centuries lepers were banished to the outskirts of town to live in poverty begging for the simplest of things.
These interactions radically changed Francis. Not only did these interactions prompt him to embrace a life devoted to Christ, he also demonstrated extreme compassion towards the lepers. It is told that he gave one leper the clothes on his back in defiance against his wealthy father whose money was made in the textile industry. It was the ultimate insult. In the book, Francis: A Call to Conversion, his conversion is described in this fashion:
“Francis declared that he would soon be betrothed to a woman of great nobility. This women was not a girl of the city [of Assisi], not creature of flesh—blood. This woman was formed of mind and spirit. She reminds us of Wisdom in Scripture. Francis named her Lady Poverty. To Francis she brought the gifts of simplicity of life, clarity of purpose, and integrity of soul.”
As a result, Francis renounced material things. His simply decided to serve the poor. By the end of the 20th Century, the Franciscan order that bears his name had 18,000 lay or ordained members world-wide.
Francis is most widely known for being given “the marks of the Lord’s wounds, the stigmata, in his own hands and feet and side.” He is probably most famous for writing the “Canticle of the Sun” which situates Francis as the saint of earthly creatures when he wrote, “Let creatures all give thanks to thee, And serve in great humility.”
In a world where seemingly there are few demonstrations of compassion, Christians have the opportunity to take the lead. Criticisms of the government’s response to the disaster on the island of Puerto Rico are prominent in the news right now despite mounting logistical problems to overcome, yet, the Episcopal Relief and Development Fund continues to do good work around the world, including responding to recent hurricanes and earthquakes. What is unique about the ERD is that the funds and the support items go directly to the affected diocese and funneled directly to the affected parishes. A quote taken from the website by the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Puerto Rico reads: “These are distressing times and we ask for your prayers . . . We will continue to support our church partners in Puerto Rico as they respond to enormous needs.” In real time, Episcopalians across the world are demonstrating compassion to a diocese in need.
Saint Francis is important to us because he called for the rich and famous of his time to meet the needs of the poor rather than squirrel away their wealth on stuff. He met humanity at their level. A little known fact is that he called for a in liturgy and spiritual practices years before the Reformation in the 16th century.
Francis died in 1226 and was canonized as a saint two years later. He is the patron saint for ecologists—honoring his boundless love for animals and nature. I like to think that people buy his statues because he was a man of the people. He loved God’s creation both the two-legged and four-legged. He was a rebel, and like Jesus, he preferred the company of the common man. I imagine that if he were alive today he would read the Gospel from The Message Bible. [The Message Bible is a recent modern translation of the Bible using contemporary language.] It reads:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Go away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—Watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
The Outline of Faith in the Book of Common Prayer addresses various topics important to our faith. One topic is the Human Nature of God. The response to the question: “How did God first help us?” is written in this manner: “God first helped us by revealing himself and his will, through nature and history, through many seers and saints, and especially through the prophets of Israel.” So the question I pose to you is this: If God chose to help us learn about him through the saints, many of whom demonstrated extreme compassion, shouldn’t we demonstrate compassionate acts too?
The ministry of freedom and hope, of reconciliation and redemption are the corner stones to Saint Francis’ ministry, that are still needed today. As Christians, we are the hands and feet of Jesus. Will you follow St. Francis’ example and be the selfless giver and carer bringing hope to a broken world?
I want to end with these quotes which are attributed to St. Francis of Assisi and which echo our Christian duty today.
- “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
- “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”
- “For it is in giving that we receive.”
 Duane W H. Arnold and C George Fry, Francis: A Call to Conversion (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Cantilever Books, 1988), 30.
 Ibid, 17.
 Ibid, 34.
 Dictionary of American History, “Franciscans,” encyclopedia.com, 2003, accessed October 5, 2016, http://www.encyclopedia.com/philosophy-and-religion/christianity/roman-catholic-orders-and-missions/franciscans.
 Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints (New York: Church Pub. Inc., 2010), 622.
 “Responding to the Ongoing Crisis in Puerto Rico after the Storms”, September 27, 2017, Episcopal Relief and Development, accessed September 30, 2017, http://www.episcopalrelief.org/press-and-resources/press-releases/2017-press-releases/episcopal-relief-and-development-responds-to-hurricane-maria#september27
 Matthew 11: 28-30, The Message Bible.
 BCP, 845.
 Arnold and Fry, 18.